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Ukraine’s survival is a modern-day Hanukkah miracle

Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s surprise visit to Washington reminds us what we’re celebrating

Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington, D.C. reminded us that Hanukkah miracles are not a thing of the past. 

During the holiday, we celebrate the Maccabees’ defeat of the far stronger Seleucid empire and the rededication of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

In the Hanukkah story, lamp oil that was supposed to last one day lasted for eight. Ukraine, which Russia invaded in an unprovoked act of aggression on Feb. 24, 2022, was supposed to last less than a week.

Instead, the country has survived, if not thrived, for 10 months. Ukraine’s ragtag army has obliterated entire Russian divisions, united world opinion against Vladimir Putin and recaptured lost territory.

In a speech delivered alongside Zelenskyy at the White House on Wednesday, President Joe Biden made the obvious connection:

Tonight is the fourth night of Hanukkah. A time when Jewish people around the world, President Zelenskyy and many families among them, honor the timeless miracle of a small band of warriors fighting for their values and their freedom against a much larger foe and how they endured and how they overcame.”

Over the centuries, rabbis have debated what the real miracle of Hanukkah was. Is it the oil? The military victory itself? That a small remnant of Jews chose to fight when so many had assimilated or capitulated?

But Rabbi Joe got it right.

Miraculous persistence

Hanukkah, he said, is “the story of survival and resilience that reminds us on the coldest day of the year, that light will always prevail over darkness.”

The true miracle of Hanukkah is persistence. The Maccabees were supposed to lose against a much more powerful foe, and so were the Ukrainians. They have so far defeated the Russians on the battlefield and surpassed the world’s expectations. 

Think back to December 2021. Putin faced an America chastened by a botched Afghanistan withdrawal. Europe was dependent on Russian oil and gas. Putin was sitting on billions in cash reserves. Russia had already taken Crimea and the Donbas region from a far weaker Ukrainian military. Russia’s leader was a former KGB intelligence officer who had won brutal conflicts in Chechnya and Syria. Ukraine’s new leader was a Jewish television comedian.

“Kyiv might not fall as quickly as the Russians expected,” a Washington Post story on American intelligence before the war reported, “but it would fall.” 

We all know what happened instead:

The Ukrainians found their leader, their Judah Maccabee, in Zelenskyy. The day before he flew to Washington to meet with Biden and Congress, to secure and give thanks for nearly $2 billion in additional security assistance to Ukraine plus millions more in humanitarian aid, Zelenskyy met with front-line troops in Bakhmut, within shelling range of Russian artillery. If he wouldn’t flinch, neither would his people.

The Ukrainian people have rededicated themselves to their homeland, despite the grim odds, significant setbacks and the unimaginable brutality of Russian troops.

United for Ukraine

At a time when so little brings the world together, Ukraine has galvanized the international community. Some 840 foreign companies have suspended their operations in Russia or exited the country completely. NATO has new life and new members. At Wednesday’s joint press conference, Biden said he had no doubt the coalition of support he put together — one of his greatest accomplishments — will hold. Dedication breeds dedication.

It was telling that Biden, a Catholic, referenced Hanukkah, but that Zelenskyy, the Jew,  spoke of Christmas.

“In two days we will celebrate Christmas,” Zelenskyy said. “Maybe candlelit. Not because it’s more romantic, no, but because there will not be — there will be no electricity.”

The Ukrainian president knew his audience. 

“Your money is not charity,” he added. “It’s an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.”

Hanukkah comes every year to teach us that every year, in every season, we must rededicate ourselves: to our goals, our dreams, to our world and to ourselves. 

Ukrainians now must dig in again, as Putin pursues the same strategy of total destruction he used in Syria, and a long winter is closing in. 

Zelenskyy showed up, no doubt, to remind us that we Americans have a role to play in this struggle — and that the hardest part may still be yet to come. 

Hanukkah will come and go, and so will Christmas. And Russia will still be there, pounding at Kyiv’s gates, trying to turn the lights out for good.

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